Chapter 25 in our series of celebrating Australian whisky takes us to Damian Mackey from Hunter Island Distillery in Tasmania, who began his professional life working as a graduate surveyor for Bill and Lyn Lark. The story of Tasmania’s modern distilling was unfolding before his eyes, and he decided then and there that whisky was the game!
The Mackey Story
Magnetic, articulate and benevolent, Damian and Madeleine Mackey know Australian whisky having already ingrained themselves in Tasmanian whisky folklore with a legacy that only few can aspire to achieve.
In 2007, Damian built a distillery in his home garage, deciding to triple distil his single malt as a tribute to his Irish heritage. The multi-award-winning Mackey labelled whisky brand was then launched in 2015 and such was the quality of the whisky, it wasn’t long until the Mackey’s realised expansion would be inevitable with so many loyal followers enjoying the fruits of their wares. What followed was a four-year partnership at Shene distillery where Damian created the award-winning Poltergeist Gin, managed distilling operations and vastly expanded his Mackey brand.
Mackey 1st Release Tasmanian Single Malt Whisky – Port Cask 700ml 49%
6-year-old bottled in 2015 with a yield of 125 bottles.
In 2018, prior to the sale of Shene to Lark, the Mackey’s sold their shares in Shene aiming for a well-earned break. A year later, they returned to Ireland, and were struck by an industry transforming itself. In 2011 when they had last visited Ireland, there had been just three Irish distilleries; but in 2019 there were nearly 40, and most of them were producing single pot still whiskey. Clearly, people around the world were falling back in love with what was once the world’s favourite whiskey.
Upon their return, in 2020, the Mackey’s laid down their first Australian-made casks of pot still whisky in the Irish tradition under their Hunter Island Whisky label…… and it’s now ready to drink!
“The first four 100L casks were released from Mackey’s Distillery with this white label. Cask 2 did very well winning IWC 2016 Best World Whisky among other awards” – Madeleine Mackey
“…a wonderful example of an elegant triple distilled whisky which is clean, smooth and beautifully complex.” – Bill Lark
Hunter Island Distillery users a 700L copper pot, Knapp Lewer Still designed by Peter Bailey that Damian employs on a fortnightly regime as it takes 6 wash runs, 2 intermediate runs and 1 spirit run to complete a cycle. So, there are 9 distillations in total producing approx. 300 to 330 litres of cask strength, new-make spirit every two weeks.
Hunter Island procure their casks from Transwood Master Coopers in Perth, Tasmania with the two-tone light shaving of the outer cask making them instantly recognisable. There are currently over 200 casks resting at the distillery with the majority been 125L. Types include bourbon, tawny port, oloroso, PX, rum and muscat amongst others. Then there’s the sub-terrain floor under the distillery’s concrete slab that’s filled with ageing whisky casks as well, a marvel of engineering that needs to be seen to be believed.
What is Single Pot Still Whiskey?
From 2008 to 2014, Irish whiskey producers in Ireland worked tirelessly towards a defined dogma to represent distinctive types of Irish whiskey and their unique production methods in order to secure an ongoing geographical indication (GI status) for Irish whiskey and its various styles: Pot Still Irish Whiskey, Malt Irish Whiskey, Grain Irish Whiskey, and Blended Irish Whiskey.
The regulations governing Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey tells us the spirit must be distilled from a mash of both malted and unmalted barley. The whiskey is required to be made in a copper pot still, and is almost always triple distilled. The exact mashbill ratios to qualify currently consists of 30% minimum malted barley, 30% minimum unmalted barley and a maximum of 5% other grains.
The Irish Whiskey Association tells us there are several proposed amendments to the current specification which have been worked on over the last 18 months by the IWA’s technical committee, composed of leading experts from across the industry and in consultation with the association’s broader membership. This includes a tweak to the current mash bill legislation using the ‘30/30/30 Rule’ allowing for up to 30% of ‘other grains’ instead of the capped 5%.
Although this rule hasn’t been signed off as gospel just yet, it’s firmly believed the law will change in the very near future with distilleries already producing mashbills using the ‘30/30/30 Rule’. There are also many examples throughout Ireland’s history that supports this conclusion, with records of mashbills from 1800-1966 demonstrating far more than 5% of other grains were common.
It’s interesting to note that by the end of the 19th century, there was more pure pot still whiskey leaving Ireland’s shores destined for foreign markets than any other whiskey style from any other country in the world. By the 1980s, however, it was a style that had almost died out, surviving only in the form of the iconic Redbreast, Green Spot and a few special releases. Today, the renaissance of Irish Pot Still whiskey has come full circle off the back of the world whisk(e)y revolution and production is ramping up at a rate not seen before in Irish whiskey circles.
For more information on the current regulations governing all styles of Irish Whiskey including the technical file/product specification, visit the Irish Whiskey Association’s website HERE! and click on the IRISH WHISKEY TECHNICAL FILE.
Hunter Island Irish Pot Still Whisky
The Mackey’s spell their Irish whisky without the ‘e’ as a nod to Tasmanian whisky and there are currently three expressions available, all with an Irish mashbill of 65% malted barley, 30% unmalted barley and 5% oats. Damian Mackey comments;
“…that’s the great thing about pot still whisky. As well as all the other factors you can vary for single malt whisky, you’ve suddenly got the mash bill to play with, and we’re really happy with the new make spirit”.
Hunter Island’s inaugural release was triple-distilled in 2020 and then the liquid was transferred to 30L ex-port and ex-oloroso sherry casks for maturation before been married together and finished in a 125L ex-bourbon cask for bottling at 48% alc with a yield of 110 bottles. Each bottle is numbered, signed by Damian Mackey and comes with an information booklet, all enclosed in a Tasmanian oak box hand crafted by Tasmanian boat builder Adrian Phillips. Released on the 27th of February 2023.
The 2nd release was also triple-distilled in 2020 before the liquid was matured in a combination of bourbon and port casks and then bottled in its natural state at 48% alc on the 27th of February 2023.
Our Current Favourite
Cask Strength – Bourbon/Port cask matured 700ml 63.1% alc.
Created from Hunter Island’s signature mash bill, 65% malted barley, 30% unmalted barley and 5% oats, and triple distilled in the distillery’s copper pot still, this whisky was first aged in ex-Port and ex-Bourbon casks and later married in an ex-Bourbon Heaven Hill American Oak quarter cask. Bottled without chill filtration in its natural state and released in June 2023.
Damian Mackey comments:
“Fat and creamy, and loaded with flavour and texture, our very first cask strength expression is ready for release”.
You can view this expression and our entire range HERE! (While stock lasts)
Our tasting notes.
We were lucky enough to sample this beauty with Damian straight from the cask before it was bottled. What a joy it is – Think sun dried fruits, Anzac biscuits, baking spices and sweet oak all mingling on a liquid-velvet palate of rich complexity leading to a medium and spicy final act from the unmalted barley.
“The amazing story of Irish single pot still whiskey belongs to the Irish, but it will resonate with Australians, many of whom regard their Irish heritage with affection”. – Damian Mackey
Today and into the Future
Today, the Mackey’s continue to produce Tasmanian pot still whisky on their equipment in New Town, Tasmania whilst searching for a permanent home for Hunter Island Distillery hopefully within the Hobart Waterfront around Macquarie Point that will be eventually open to the public.
The team in theory had already picked a site for their new distillery at Goods Shed in Macquarie Point on the water, however the Government’s initiative to build an AFL stadium and entertainment quarter has temporarily torpedoed their plans to take over the Goods Shed as it will be part of the stadium development IF the project is eventually green lighted. This leaves Hunter Island caught between a rock and a political hard place for their future relocation plans. There’s also the question of the cost of rental space in the entertainment quarter if the stadium goes ahead which simple economics tells us will skyrocket.
Imagine the waterfront of Hobart /nipaluna in 1804. There were no big hotels, paved streets or industrial yards; no waterfront restaurants, pubs or cruise ships. Instead, there was a bay surrounding a small rocky island. When the British arrived, they named it Hunter Island.
No matter what happens, Hunter Island whisky will be moving on from New Town as the team actively sort out alternative locations whilst keeping a keen ear on developing news regarding the new stadium build. Chatting with Damian Mackey earlier today he commented;
“At the Goods Shed, our business model was going to be ‘small distillery, big opportunity’ with a retailing cellar door and drinks with our loyal supporters. It was always going to be fairly small in production because it was a great business model with direct retail across the bar in a glass or by the bottle. So, where we might go to next is away from the very expensive water front where we’ll be focusing more on bigger production potential and not so much direct sales to the public with distribution in mind and ultimately to the export market”.
The Mackey’s graciously invited our small team into their Tassie home earlier this year as we plunged spirit thieves into casks and chatted all things whisky while spending quality time together. The laid-back ambience of the distillery had us under her spell in minutes, captivated by the aromas and history been made before us in present-day suburbia.
Damian and Madeleine’s contribution to the Australian whisky industry should not be understated. They go about their work with a constant smile and an alluring charisma, often flying under the radar due to their humble nature and passionate poise. However, they are titans of our industry with a track record second to almost none. As mentioned earlier, they’re also the first creators of the original, world conquering, Australian Poltergeist Gin that’s gone on to win over a dozen international awards including Platinum at the 2019 and 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition – the world’s first gin to be awarded Platinum for two consecutive years. Yet, another feather in their distilling cap.
On a personal note, Ross and I are looking forward to watching Hunter Island whisky (no doubt) thrive whilst playing our part in getting their liquid on as many lips as possible. We wish Damian and Madeleine smooth distilling and happy hunting in their quest to relocate their distillery that’s become quite the institution, and a must have whisky staple amongst aficionados across our Great Southern land.
Hunter Island Distillery – A New Legacy Awaits!